April 2015 | Rebecca Rego Barry

FBI Seizes Rare Books Presumed Stolen from NYPL

library25n-1-web.jpgLate last week the Wall Street Journal reported on a federal investigation of rare book theft. According to New York Public Library (NYPL) officials, eight books--seven bibles published between 1692 and 1861 and Benjamin Franklin's printshop accounts book, known as "Work Book No. 2"--have been seized pursuant to a grand jury subpoena. The Franklin manuscript book, dating from 1759-1766 and offering a look inside the founding father's printing partnership with David Hall, would alone be worth more than $1 million.

The NYPL was tipped off to the alleged theft when Doyle New York, an auction house based in Manhattan, alerted library officials in June of 2014 that several books with library markings had come in for appraisal and consignment. The would-be consignor, Margaret Tanchuk of Long Island, New York, said the books had been in her family for nearly three decades. The NYPL explained to Doyle that the contested books had never been deaccessioned and had been illegally removed sometime between 1988 and 1991.   

Tanchuk then offered to sell the items to the NYPL for what library officials called a "significant amount." The NYPL declined, and Tanchuk initiated legal proceedings to have the books declared hers.

Tanchuk told the New York Daily News that she uncovered the books while putting her mother's estate in order. Her father, a Long Island jewelry dealer, "developed a network for buying and selling valuable items -- often jewelry, but on occasion other rare and valuable assets as well." Both parents are now deceased. Tanchuk's lawyer maintained that his client is "bewildered and horrified that the U.S. Attorney would think for a moment that she would do anything illegal."

Over at Philobiblos, Jeremy Dibbell turned up an old newspaper account about "Work Book No. 2" showing that the manuscript had been originally discovered in a New Jersey resident's attic in 1924. The famous book dealer A. S. W. Rosenbach pounced on that rare find and likely sold it to the NYPL soon thereafter. A photocopy of "Work Book No. 2" in the Hall papers at the American Philosophical Society lists the original as belonging to the NYPL.  
While Tanchuk and her counsel acknowledge that NYPL may once have owned the books, they contend that since the library failed to pursue the possibly purloined material sooner, it lost its legal right to the books. Her complaint states: "...not once during those 24-27 years did the NYPL make any effort to claim (or re-claim) the contested items, made no announcement of its loss or misplacement, did not report the contested items missing to the police or any other law enforcement agency, did not make any claim to an insurer and did not generate a single internal document acknowledging the loss or misplacement of the contested items."

Library officials, however, note that it is not unusual for stolen material to resurface after years or decades from research institutions with collections as vast as the NYPL's. In a statement released to media, NYPL spokesman Ken Weine said, "This material was evidently stolen from the Library, and now someone is trying to profit from it. We will aggressively work to ensure that this material is returned to the public domain where it belongs."